"Breaking Bad," Skyler White, and Unspoken Double Standard We Place on Female Anti-Heroes
A recent NYTimes piece by Anna Gunn about the audience perception of her Breaking Bad character, Skyler White, has raised a number of issues about the misogynistic perception of many female characters in television dramas. Back in May, Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan also addressed the issue, saying:
We’ve been at events and had all our actors up onstage, and people ask Anna Gunn, “Why is your character such a bitch?” And with the risk of painting with too broad a brush, I think the people who have these issues with the wives being too bitchy on Breaking Bad are misogynists, plain and simple. I like Skyler a little less now that she’s succumbed to Walt’s machinations, but in the early days she was the voice of morality on the show. She was the one telling him, “You can’t cook crystal meth.” She’s got a tough job being married to this asshole. And this, by the way, is why I should avoid the Internet at all costs. People are griping about Skyler White being too much of a killjoy to her meth-cooking, murdering husband? She’s telling him not to be a murderer and a guy who cooks drugs for kids. How could you have a problem with that.
I agree with both Gilligan and Anna Gunn to an extent: The level of venom; the heinous, atrocious nature of the name calling; and the personal attacks have been completely, irredeemably uncalled for, and the people who anonymously toss out the C-word (or worse) in reference to Skyler White and, especially, Anna Gunn personally, deserve their own special place in hell, trapped alone with only the booming sound of their own sh*tty voices drowning out their idiotic thoughts for all of eternity.
However, I don’t necessarily agree that Skyler White was a particularly likable character, either in the beginning of the series or, more obviously now that she aligns herself with Walt. Nevertheless, I think she’s a well written character, perfectly suited to Breaking Bad, and I agree that early on, she was the voice of morality on the show. That does not, however, make her a likable character.
(Part of the problem, or at least the way I see it, is if a writer on a great show has an unlikable female character, then it’s the audience’s fault for not seeing the good in her. If there are unlikable female characters on less critically well-received shows (like, say, The Newsroom), it’s the writer’s fault for not creating a better female character. It hardly seems fair to blame the perception of a character entirely on the audience if we don’t happen to like the killjoy on a show centered around an anti-hero. “Dexter’s” Rita Morgan is a perfect example. She was also the voice of morality on “Dexter,” and she was also something of a killjoy, but the way her character was written was enormously problematic. You simply can’t ask an audience to root both for the anti-hero and the character trying to hold the anti-hero in check (any vitriolic invective aimed at Julie Benz, nevertheless, is inexcusable, and that rests with stupid people’s stupid inability to separate reality from a television show).)
The point I’m driving at, however, is not the way audiences respond to female killjoys (you could also lump the early season iteration of Winona from “Justified” into this camp), but in the absence of well-written female anti-heroines on television for whom we can root. Why aren’t there any female Walter Whites on television?
That’s a more difficult issue to unpack and while I’d love to think we could accept a series centered around a female anti-hero, one example illustrates how unfavorably audiences might react to a ruthless, murdering, ego-driven female lead, especially if she was a mom. Yes, we love Alice Morgan on “Luther,” and yes, audiences seem to be drawn to “Justified’s” Ava Crowder, but they are supporting characters in shows about men. A better example to illustrate the issues with female anti-heroes on television might be “Weeds.”
Yes, I’ll be the first to admit that much of the problem with “Weeds,” especially after they left Agrestic, has a lot to do with the writing on that show. Still, there was another impediment in the way of the audience’s acceptance of the darker, power-driven Nancy Botwin of the later seasons, and that was her motherhood.
Audiences were fully behind Nancy Botwin in the early seasons, when she resorted to dealing pot in order to maintain her family’s quality of life. We applauded the fact that she found a novel solution to the difficult problem she faced after the death of her husband. But our attitudes toward Nancy Botwin took a sudden shift when it became less about her children and more about her own narcissism. Nancy Botwin used her sexuality to get ahead, she was instrumental in the deaths of characters, she willingly assisted in creating a pipeline for drugs from Mexico to the United States, and she heavily involved her own family in her schemes with little to no concern for their ultimate outcomes. She was in it for herself, and not for her family. This was unforgivable, and that has far more to do with gender roles and our societal expectations of the way mothers should behave than it does with sloppy writing.
Walter White, Dexter Morgan, and Nucky Thompson (to name a few) are despicable characters, with whom we nevertheless have had rooting interests. They are also terrible parents, but few in the audience place an onus upon them to eschew their immorality for the betterment of their children. Those expectations lie in the mothers, and there’s no better illustration of the audience’s difficulties with matriarchal anti-heroes than the audience’s reaction to Skyler White smoking a cigarette while she was pregnant. The level of outrage was completely disproportionate to the offense. Her husband cooks meth, murders people, and places his family in grave danger, and we rooted for him, yet I cannot tell you how many times I have read on Internet comment boards people flipped the f*ck out because Skyler smoked a goddamn cigarette during her pregnancy.
Our society still expects mothers to be the symbol of morality, and to impart those lessons on our children. Their failure to do so is contemptible and inexcusable. If a father in a movie abandons his wife and children, he’s an asshole. If a mother does the same, she’s morally repugnant individual incapable of redemption. We value ambition in our male characters, even at a moral cost, but there’s a limit to how much ambition we can accept in mothers, and as soon as it conflicts with her parenting responsibilities, we withdraw our sympathies.
I’m not saying its wrong to value the parenting skills of a mother, that would be silly and misguided, even in the context of a fictional television series. Rather I’m suggesting that we should hold our male anti-heroes to the same standard. If Dexter leaves his kid with a nanny all day, or takes him on a kill; or if Walter White places his own family in danger by getting in too deep with a criminal element, we should also factor in their roles as fathers in our sympathy calculus. Walter White is not just a terrible person because he cooks meth and murders people, but because he’s also a shitty father. If we can’t give our darkly drawn female protagonists a free pass on motherhood, we shouldn’t allow for the same in our anti-hero fathers.